Barnaby Joyce has been comprehensively isolated by the Prime Minister after Malcolm Turnbull revealed Joyce would be taking leave rather than acting as Prime Minister next week while Turnbull visits the United States.

The move comes after the PM has stated all week that Joyce would be acting Prime Minister and retained his full confidence.

Turnbull’s statement came at the start of what proved to be a disastrous question time for Joyce as Labor, led by shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, zeroed in on inconsistencies between Joyce’s statement that he had not approached businessman Greg Maguire for free accommodation, and Maguire’s reported statements that Joyce had approached him. However, the opposition then moved on to the potentially far more damaging suggestion that Maguire had benefited from a Department of Agriculture function being held in Armidale at one of his properties, at a reported cost of $5,000, when Joyce was Agriculture minister.

The Deputy Prime Minister struggled to answer repeated questions about the function — plausibly given, as he correctly noted, it would be rare that a minister would sign off on such a small amount of departmental expenditure — amid visible gloom in government ranks. 

Toward the end of question time, Labor turned its attention to the Prime Minister, asking for detail on Joyce’s compliance with the Statement of Ministerial Standards and Turnbull’s own knowledge that Joyce had been living rent-free. At one point, a visibly struggling Turnbull turned to Joyce for information, scrolled through his iPad at the Dispatch Box to find information and conversed with opposition interjecters while trying to find detail about Joyce’s statement about the accommodation. It was a deeply embarrassing performance for a Prime Minister who has been so very badly let down by Joyce.

Labor declined the perhaps obvious route of calling a censure motion at the end of question time. The damage had been done to both Joyce and Turnbull, and in the case of the former, it must surely, now, be terminal.

The only positives were that Speaker Tony Smith proved his mettle in resisting government pressure to rule questions out of order and refusing to provide protection for the beleaguered Joyce — and that, with Deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop away next week as well, government Senate leader Mathias Cormann would be acting Prime Minister in Turnbull’s absence.

Given Cormann’s competence, solidity, political smarts and good sense, he’s exactly what this wretched, staggeringly inept government needs. If only he could act for longer than a few days.

Update

In an effort to staunch the bleeding and distance himself yet further from Joyce, the Prime Minister this afternoon called a media conference to announce changes to his Statement of Ministerial Standards, including a ban on sexual relationships between ministers and staff. Turnbull also gave Joyce a huge serve, saying

“the real issue is the terrible hurt and humiliation that Barnaby, by his conduct, has visited upon his wife, Natalie, and their daughters and, indeed, his new partner. Barnaby made a shocking error of judgement in having an affair with a young woman working in his office. In doing so, he has set off a world of woe for those women and appalled all of us.”

Only a few days ago, Turnbull explicitly ruled out such a ban on sexual relationships, saying they were “not normally something you would be justified in seeking to regulate.”

Peter Fray

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